The Good and Bad Versions of High Voter Turnout
Critics of Georgia’s new election law and other proposals like it have alleged that Republicans are making it harder to vote, because higher turnout is good for Democrats, ergo for Republicans to win they must suppress the vote. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it would appear to be uncontroversial to say that only people who do not have confidence in their ideas would seek to have as small of an electorate as possible.
Like most things in politics though, it is not that simple. There is good high voter turnout and bad high voter turnout.
People who praise high levels of voter participation view high turnout as a sign that democracy is healthy. High voter turnout, it is said, shows people care about what goes on in their country and participate in the political process. The opposite phenomena is one where the electorate is apathetic, where people view Republicans and Democrats as part of the same corrupt team and this song and dance they do every election is just for show or that they do genuinely compete, but not over principle, but who gets to whore out to which special interest. It does not matter whether you vote for the red team or the blue team, nothing changes.
Based on this description high voter turnout sounds desirable, but unfortunately, this does not describe 2020, which critics allege Republicans are responding to.
Does anyone really believe that voter turnout was so high in 2020 because we have done such a good job with civics education in this country that the roughly 160 million people who voted thought deeply about the candidates’ policies and character qualities and then made an informed decision about who gets to make decisions regarding war and peace? No, of course not.
If you were to listen to the Trump Campaign, Joe Biden is a Trojan Horse meant to usher in a socialist hellscape where his progressive puppet masters dump all over the Constitution, including on religious liberty, the Second Amendment, due process protections, and then defund police departments. He also has a long history of lying, is losing his mental faculties, and given his son’s financial problems, he is Xi Jinping’s puppet.
Meanwhile, if you were to listen to the Biden Campaign, Donald Trump was a racist, sexist, bigoted, and corrupt authoritarian who dumps all over the Constitution’s separation of powers and provisions regarding press freedom, religious freedom, and equal protection. He also has a long history of lying, is also losing his mental faculties, and he is also Vladimir Putin’s puppet.
High voter turnout in 2020 was not motivated by civic and patriotic duty, but a sense that if you did not vote, you would be responsible for allowing the country to go to hell. Even if either or both of the above descriptions of the candidates can be described as accurate, it is not healthy for every election to be “the most important election of our lifetime.”
Writing about this topic from another angle, Kevin Williamson at National Review had another point that got blowback in left-wing corners of the internet. It was one that all of us who get paid to follow politics, whether we are on the left, right, or somewhere in-between, all know to be true, but hardly ever say out loud: voters aren’t all that bright and often morally wrong.
Most attempts to encourage civic engagement, especially youth engagement, consists of hyping voting as a gateway to civic participation. In fact, it should be just the opposite. Voting should be a culmination of your civic engagement. Why are we supposed to applaud 67% of Americans voting, while only 51% Americans can identify all three branches of government? Of those 51% it is reasonable to assume that not all of them spend there days wondering why government exists or where do rights come from?
But even activists who are informed and care tremendously about politics, are not necessarily all that bright either. Try telling a progressive activist who has a long wish list of progressive goodies that the alternative to Joe Manchin in a 50–50 Senate is another, more liberal Democrat, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or that if Democrats pack the Supreme Court, Republicans can pack it too. Try telling a die-hard Trump supporter that Trump lost fair and square.
High voter turnout can be a good thing, but it must address two problems. First, a larger electorate accompanied with ubiquitous voter registration PSAs does not necessarily mean a more informed electorate. Second, a more informed electorate could lead to a scared and angry electorate where people come to believe that democracy and freedom themselves are on the ballot.
This is not to say that low voter turnout is ideal because the electorate will be more educated. As previously stated, low voter turnout can be a sign of apathy. The moral of the story is that the quality of the two candidates and why people voted for them matters more in an election than how the cumulative vote total.